FAHS LECTURE: GROWING PEOPLE OF PROPHETIC FIRE
Richard S. Gilbert –
Dedicated to the late Helena Palmer Chapin
Introduction: What Is the Half-Life of What We Do?
April of 2002 I helped escort 17 14-and 15-year-olds from the
Now, as I understand it, the term half-life usually refers to the process by which a radioactive isotope falls to half its original power. This process continues ad infinitum, but the power of the isotope never really reaches zero. There’s a similar question: What is the half-life of matters spiritual? Ethical? After 45 years in our ministry I begin to wonder about the half-life of the hundreds of sermons I have preached, the lectures I have delivered and the classes I have taught over that span.
I rather like the idea that their value may never completely reach zero, that they will have an influence long after I have gone. It’s what I call spiritual osmosis. Our souls have permeable membranes. We influence each other in ways we may never know. And who knows what the half-life of our work as Unitarian Universalist religious educators will be?
know the “half-life” of Sophia Lyon Fahs is still powerful in me. I grew up on “The Gospel According to Martin
and Judy,” How Miracles Abound and Beginnings of Earth, Sky, Life and Death in
Her book on liberal religious education philosophy, Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, made its mark on me – so much so that I presumptuously hope to write a 21st century sequel on Unitarian Universalist religious education history and philosophy. In that 1952 book she critiqued our sometimes self-serving individualism, illustrated in the 19th century Unitarian concept of “salvation by character:” She wrote, “This unfortunate pattern is that character has come to be thought of as something self-contained, achievable singly, apart from the nature of the society in which the individual lives. . . . we need to turn children’s attention to the ‘togetherness’ that is involved in worthwhile living. . . . we need to realize that life never ceases to be a giving and a receiving. If our long-time goal is the salvation of a world community rather than merely the salvation of a few select individuals within this universal community, our concept of individual responsibility is changed. . . .”
We are derivative creatures. We individuals were not in the beginning. We are precipitated out of that “web of all existence of which we are a part.” We didn’t make it; it made us. It preceded us in every respect. We didn’t create our family; it created us. We didn’t create our religious faith or our congregation; we joined what was already there. We are not only individuals, we are members. Without the cosmic context, without the human milieu, we are nothing.
People of Prophetic Fire
All of which leads me to my theme, “Growing People of Prophetic Fire.” One of the books that emerged under Sophia Lyon Fah’s editorship of the New Beacon Series in Religious Education was Rolland Emerson Wolfe’s Men of Prophetic Fire, a study of the Hebrew prophets. Bible scholar Gerhard von Rad once defined the prophet as “one who participates in the emotions of God.” I’m not sure I do, but I have tried to practice a prophetic ministry. I remember my seminary bible professor, Morton Scott Enslin, who said that the prophets were not “foretellers” of the future; they were “forthtellers” who “spoke truth to power.”
Wolfe, whose incisive short essay What Is the Bible? was published by the UUA, wrote that the prophets were mostly young and subversive, often heretics, rebels. They preached on the issues of the day, war and peace, poverty and justice. They were ancient figures in a long line of prophets of the human spirit which continues in our time. As I looked for a title for my book on Unitarian Universalist social justice, The Prophetic Imperative, I found I could not do better than to lift up the term “prophet,” adding to it my own sense of urgency – “imperative.” There is a history quiz in the study guide for that book, entitled “People of Prophetic Fire: A Friendly Quiz.” In it I included our own liberal religious prophets from Theodore Parker and Margaret Fuller to John Haynes Holmes and Susan B. Anthony. They were prophets of the human spirit – the great teachers and preachers of their time, social activists and reformers, the liberals of their days, the radicals of their times. They were also poets – poetry being memorable speech. You’ve read them. You know them: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Jonah and Jesus, as well as prophets down through the ages in unbroken line.
Even John Dewey, educator and humanist,
spoke in this tradition when he wrote in "My Pedagogic Creed": "Every teacher should recognize the
dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the
maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right of social
growth. In this way the teacher always
is a prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true
Our own Theodore Parker, prophetic minister of the 19th century, said, “Shall justice fall and perish out of the world? Shall wrong continually endure? Injustice cannot stand. No armies, no alliances, can hold it up. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But does the moral arc of the universe bend toward justice? Surely there is nothing automatic about it; Parker knew, and we know, that it is we who do the bending. His prophetic words are true only if we Unitarian Universalists can learn to practice the prophetic imperative in the 21st century.
In sum, we need to become a prophetic church where we can walk the talk – where justice and righteousness flow down like waters – where we are not content to sit in the balcony, but are out there on the road – the proverbial road to Jericho. It is something like what Bill Moyers calls “the importance of being a public nuisance,” questioning the conventional wisdom and the status quo – trying to live out the spirit of those prophets of old. I see the political role of the church as prophetic - dropping Amos’ plumb line of righteousness; with Isaiah loosing the bonds of injustice, with Micah doing justice and loving mercy, with Jesus blessing the poor and the imprisoned. And so what is required of us is that we become a “saving remnant,” a militant minority mobilized to protect human rights, to raise the hard questions, to insist on different answers, to advocate for peace and justice.
I am inspired by Charles Schultz in Peanuts. Charlie Brown says to Linus: “When I grow up I think I’ll be a great prophet, I’ll speak profound truths but no one will listen to me.” Linus asks: “If you know ahead of time that no one is going to listen to you, why speak?" Charlie Brown replies in words I could not have chosen better: “We prophets are very stubborn.” And so must we be.
But where will our prophets come from? Are we growing them in our congregations or are we simply hoping they will miraculously appear in a kind of spontaneous generation?
The Problem: We Are Losing
A Garry Trudeau Doonesbury
cartoon captures our problem as we set our sails in a tsunami of
conservatism. Mark, the 60’s liberal, is
in the radio studio watching TV. “Fox
News: We report, you decide.” He responds, “That has to be the most cynical
slogan in the history of journalism.”
His fellow talk-show host, Harvey the conservative, chimes in: “Drives you crazy, doesn’t it? You know why?
Because you liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of
view! But conservatives feel no need
whatsoever to consider other views. We
know we’re right, so why bother? Because
we have no tradition of tolerance, we’re unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time.” Mark ponders as
A caricature, to be sure - some of my best friends are conservatives – political and religious - but it does cause one to reflect. As we array ourselves for encounters with the religious right, I think there is a kernel of truth here. Are religious liberals too tolerant, too open, too nice, too wishy washy? Do we expose our children to other faiths so generously they do not understand their own and cannot articulate its values? Are we so open to other views, so cautious in our fear of being dogmatic, so enamored of the ambiguity and ambivalence in religious and political life that we are in fact steam-rollered by those who claim absolute certainty in religion – because the Bible tells them so – or in politics - because Karl Rove tells them so?
At its root liberalism means openness, humility, generosity of spirit, neighborliness, loving compassion toward the other, the stranger, even the enemy. But is it humane to form “soft selves in a hard world?" In an intensely competitive society, dare we teach our children empathy, compassion, community, cooperation? Are these values dysfunctional in the hardball religion and politics of 21st century life?
Let me share with you a few scenes from the American religious landscape that give me theological and political shivers and have serious implications for our life-span religious education programs.
“Meditation of a Middle-Aged, (Upper) Middle-Class, White, Liberal,
Protestant Parent,” was the title of an article in The Christian Century a few years ago in which a mother described a
peace rally during the Vietnam War. Pete
McClosky, a liberal and anti-war Republican congressman from
Item: From The Washington Post, February 16, 2004: “Falwell’s Fast Talkers for Christ.” It seems that Jerry Falwell, Chancellor of
Liberty University, is preparing his students to defend their brand of
Christianity in the secular culture. As
a result the debate team at
Item: From The
New York Times, March 8, 2004: “College for the Home-Schooled Is Shaping
Leaders for the Right.”
Item: In the
wake of the 2004 election New York Times columnist
Tom Friedman wrote that we are “Two nations, under God.” He said we have become divided into those who
watch Fox News – “we report, you decide” – and those who read The New York
Times – “all the news that’s fit to print.”
He went on: “We don’t just
disagree on what
Item: In 2004
political theorist Gary Wills wrote another post-election column, “The Day the
Enlightenment Went Out,” pointing out that President Bush’s evangelical vote is
perhaps William Cullen Bryant’s revenge for the Scopes Monkey Trial of
1925. “Can a people that believes more
fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened
nation?” He further pointed out that “The secular states of modern
Item: Christian evangelicals are perhaps the most powerful single voting block in the nation - a kind of massive religious political action committee. There was a sign draped across the balcony at a recent National Association of Evangelicals conference during a piped-in speech from President Bush: “What can 30 million evangelicals do? Anything they want.” The religious right has what Mark Twain called “the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” I doubt this General Assembly will be so confident.
My fear is that Unitarian
Universalists are not prepared to stem the rising tide of theocracy in this
nation; that we have not understood our history of heresy and reform; that we are not equipping ourselves spiritually
and morally and politically to be effective agents for our vision of justice;
that, even worse, we are not adequately preparing our young to become
tomorrow’s people of prophetic fire. The
fact of the matter is that we are losing – losing the battle for the heart and
What will be our response? Let me get personal, sharing stories out of my own life that give me hope – and lead me to believe we can respond effectively. I share them because they are ingrained in me and inspire me to a confidence that we can grow people of prophetic fire. They are not merely narratives, but suggest the kind of experiences I believe need to be incorporated into our religious education programs.
My wife Joyce and I grew up Universalists in Upstate New York – we collected money for Universalist-sponsored Clara Barton and Eliot P. Joslin Camps for Diabetic Children from our own resources – our pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters. Early on we learned to give to our church to help repair the world. Joyce worked in a settlement house during her college years and has been a church and community volunteer all her life.
the summer of 1965 she and I led a delegation of 8 Unitarian Universalist and
other youth working at UUSC’s Jordan Neighborhood House in
One evening in the summer of 1983, I took our older son, Matthew, then 16, to the Women's Peace Encampment at Seneca Army Depot in Upstate New York. The Depot was reputed to be a neutron bomb storage site. Ever since attending the UU United Nations Youth Seminar that spring, he has been an activist. We visited the farm where the women lived, and then set out to find members of our congregation who were to participate in a vigil at the Depot entrance. The scene was ominous. The police were there with their flashing lights. A growing knot of unfriendly townspeople formed a gauntlet between our parking space and the protestors. They had come to stare and heckle at best, to do mischief at worst. I was apprehensive; I could sniff violence in the wind. We did not immediately spot our friends and so I was prepared to leave, when he asked me “why?” and persuaded me to stay. My heart was in my throat, but I could not deny his challenge to me to practice what I had been preaching. We walked the gauntlet, joined the women for the vigil, and departed unharmed.
I learned something about myself that night - my own anxiety, my son's commitment, and my sense these women were laying their lives on the line for what I, and they, believed in. My son and I came closer together that night. We both clarified our values and what they meant for our behavior. Out of a simple gesture of social action came enhanced life meaning. I knew then that one reason I seek to "change the world" was the son who made me face up to my convictions.
Some years later, during the run-up to the
Years ago the Unitarian Universalist Service
Committee sponsored an Urban Youth Experience program to involve high school
youth 16 and over in social action, but sadly it failed for lack of
congregational support. I remember
because I was on the UUSC Board at that time.
However, in 1985 our younger son, Douglas, participated in a similar
program created by three Denver-area congregations. A group of six UU youth lived with local
families and were linked to community programs from the ACLU to Planned
Parenthood, from soup kitchens to homeless shelters. Two weekly reflection periods with a
ministerial student, Marty Griffith, who later became an intern at First
take one 16 year old from a white liberal and idealistic family and drop him into
in 1991, taking a year between high school and college, he spent 13 weeks at
the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network in Philadelphia as an intern. He lived with the director's family, doing
child care, house and yard work for room and board. This second-born furthered his education by
spending his junior year of college in
Now, as a world history teacher in an independent school he has his students engaged in working with new refugees in Rochester and otherwise reflecting on the world into which they will soon move. I am proud.
During the summer of 2003 Douglas, his wife, child,
two dogs and a cat were burned out of their
These family experiences are mirrored in
similar church-based experiences. While I
was doing an interim ministry in
On yet another Rochester Religion in Life
pilgrimage our group wound up at UUSC headquarters in
For years the Rochester Unitarian youth group served the soup kitchen at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church; they worked with Habitat for Humanity for a weekend experiencing at first hand an urban ghetto. Not only this, they were supervised by an orthodox Muslim couple with whom they had fascinating conversations about the similarities and differences in their respective faiths. More recently some of these youth went to the maquiladora factories on the US-Mexican border with the New York State Labor and Religion Committee – reprising a trip I had made there some years before. They saw at first hand some of the results of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In each case they had class-time opportunities for religious reflection.
One of our Religion in Life youth, Brad the Dad’s
son, became a supervisor in a Catholic Worker soup kitchen, a leader in the
peace movement and is currently spending six months volunteering at a home of
homeless and street children in
A few years ago I received a letter from the parents of a high school graduate who had been part of our Religion in Life program. After quoting the adage, "It takes a whole village to raise a child," they listed the "elders" in their son's village, including me and others in church. Following the list was a moving statement of gratitude by parents who realized the variety of people who made up their son's "village-web," as they called it.
I know from observation and from your response to the simple survey sent to many of you that this is increasingly happening in our congregations: an economic justice project in Greenville, South Carolina; anti-oppression work and Justice Sundays in our Monterey Peninsula church in California; in work trips to Lacombe, Louisiana, by youth and adults from our Charlottesville, Virginia congregation; senior high youth from the UU Church of Indianapolis, who have built homes in Tennessee and Michigan; our Austin, Texas, congregation supported two families from New Orleans and is seeking a church-wide social action project; our Woodinville Church in the Pacific Northwest hosts a tent city for the homeless in their parking lot. “When children visiting from another church referred to the homeless as ‘hobos’, the dignity of our homeless guests was staunchly defended by WUUC’s children who didn’t let the slur pass.” This informal survey was not only a modest research project for this lecture, but an attempt to encourage all congregations to evaluate how they are growing people of prophetic fire. As I read them I was both encouraged and concerned that we have so far to go.
It has been said that the congregation is the curriculum, but I would add, it is the congregation serving the wider world that is the curriculum for growing people of prophetic fire.
We Learn by Doing
Now, what religious values are embodied in these narratives?
Heresy – choosing to challenge conventional wisdom and entrenched power. I have come to the conclusion that to raise children of good will one must constantly question the prevailing cultural values. Our culture has become terribly self-indulgent. We must struggle to overcome the dominant narcissism and preserve the basic values of human service and social responsibility.
Cognitive dissonance – learning by exposure to a radically different environment. Students of human development tell us that basic values are formed in the decisive adolescent years. Without such experiences children of affluence do not experience the clash of idealism and reality necessary to moral growth. Greed, once a vice, has become a virtue, and infects us all. We need to serve not only children at risk from poverty, but children at risk from affluence.
Empathy – a “feeling with” the other, especially with the dispossessed of this world. We all need to have experiences that take us out of our comfort zone into contact with the “others” with whom we have little experience. In the class warfare of our society these experiences don’t often come naturally; they need to be planned. Religious educators need to build on the natural empathy that is part of the package human nature grants us.
Stewardship - participation in a religious community that means something – that models love and peace and justice – in which the whole congregation is part of the teaching team. As historian Conrad Wright says, “Joining a church should not be the same as joining the National Geographic Society.” We are not only individuals; we are members of a community. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.”
– education against feelings of helplessness.
There is a Christian concept called "equipping the saints," a
rather pretentious way of saying that religiously motivated change agents need education
and training to engage in peace and justice work. In a world where we are being outmaneuvered by
a highly‑motivated and resource-rich religious right we need to do more
than casual preparation for social action. We have models for this: the Faithful Fools of San Francisco’s
Tenderloin District, a
Action – walking the talk in a world of paralysis by analysis. We can begin by giving opportunities for our very young to make linkages with our very old, for example, distributing flowers to our sick and shut-ins as an outgrowth of a worship service. Every religious education program ought to have a social action component. Our goal is to grow people of prophetic fire who will understand helping to repair the world is no extra-curricular activity; it is simply part of what it is to be Unitarian Universalist.
I envision a program for high school
youth called YEAST, Youth in Education and Social Transformation, to expose our
mostly suburban youth to social reality – suburban, rural and urban. This could be patterned on the
This is praxis – learning by doing - the human dialogue of action and reflection. The experiences I have described are immensely enriched when participants have opportunity to put them in theological and ethical context.
What we have here is "a church without walls." One of our tasks as religious educator/activists is to expand the Unitarian Universalist horizon beyond the confines of a religious institution. All of this is in the context of a teaching-learning, life-span religious community. However, despite all the programmatic innovations we may make, despite all the new curricula we can create, it remains true that we communicate our values as a religious community by what we are and do. The church teaches by what it is and does. "Examples," as religious education pioneer Horace Bushnell once said, "are the only sufficient commentaries."
Gardeners of the Spirit
There are many goals we cherish as religious educators: spiritual growth, theological literacy, healthy sexuality, ethical responsibility, institutional stewardship, among others we might name. But all these goals will pale if we do not commit ourselves to grow people of prophetic fire who will be part of that creative minority whose task is no less than to help repair a broken world. After all, life is our only chance to grow a soul, to love and be loved and to help repair the world.
In her poem "Invocation to Kali," the late Unitarian Universalist poet May Sarton, wrote,
“Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
have been reading the Life and Work of
Susan B. Anthony by Ida Husted Harper, 1600 pages of how one woman became a person of prophetic
fire – as part of my research for a book on The
Religious Life of Susan B. Anthony: No
Consorting with Angels. It is a
congratulatory, rather than a critical biography, but it has moved me to tears,
having served Miss Anthony’s Unitarian congregation in
Susan B. was a gardener of the spirit and what are any of us but gardeners of the spirit, getting our fingernails dirty with the work of the world, celebrating the growth we experience and observe? We take the mud of the earth, mix with holy water, and behold - a human being. Our church communities are the rich soil in which people of prophetic fire will grow in this mystical spiritual osmosis. We are gardeners of the spirit whose essential mission is to grow people of prophetic fire. Let’s get busy.
 Sophia Lyon Fahs. Today’s Children and Yesterday’s
Rolland Emerson Wolfe. Men of Prophetic
 Gerhard von Rad. The Christian Century, 5/23/79, 589.
 John Dewey. My Pedagogic Creed.
 Theodore Parker. Unknown source.
 Doonesbury, 7/13/03.
 “Meditation of a Middle-Aged, (Upper) Middle-Class, White, Liberal, Protestant Parent,” The Christian Century, August 15-22, 1979.
“Falwell’s Fast Talker for Christ,” The
“College for the Home-Schooled Is Shaping Leaders for the Right” by David D.
 Thomas Freedman, New York Times ???
 Gary Wills ???
 Rochester Catholic Worker Spring 2006.
 Conrad Wright, 10.
 Henry Munroe. (see RE quote card)
 Horace Bushnell.
May Sarton, “Invocation to Kali,” A Grain of Mustard Seed: New Poems.
 1902 interview in Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony: Volume 3, Ida Husted Harper, Ayer Company Publishing, reprint edition 1958, p. 1258.